By David Hammond
The American drinking public has a lot to learn about sake. With the continuing surge in the popularity of sushi places, it makes sense to understand a beverage that’s the natural complement to sashimi, nigiri and rolls.
To provide some insights into this ancient beverage, I consulted the collective sake wisdom of Jasmine Neosh (sake specialist, Kizuki); Ty Fujimura (owner-operator, Arami, SmallBar) and Patrick Lutz (beverage manager, Imperial Lamian).
What’s a good place to start learning about the beverage?
Neosh: Seek out an izakaya with a decent sake-by-the-glass list and let them know what you like to drink. Example: if you like white wine, try a junmai ginjo with some nice fruit notes. If you like whisky, ask if they have a taru sake (sake aged in a cedar cask). For more in-depth and academic information, John Gauntner’s “Sake Confidential” is a must for anyone who wants to know sake. It’s comprehensive without being too esoteric and it offers real-world sake examples you can get at restaurants and sake shops.
What are some common misconceptions about sake—and is there one key point about sake that you feel people should keep in mind when ordering it.
Fujimura: I think the most common misconception is that sake is stronger in alcohol content than it actually is. Sake has an A.B.V. (alcohol by volume) similar to wine: fourteen to sixteen percent is common. Sake is meant to be sipped, enjoyed with food and good conversation. Another popular misconception is that all hot sake is probably bad sake. While some restaurants may heat their sake to mask flavors, warming sake can sometimes bring out delicious flavors. Lastly, sake is not rice wine; it’s actually brewed, like beer.
Lutz: Many Americans have the notion that sake is a hot beverage, served over the counters of sushi bars, or that it should be consumed by submerging small shots of sake into a glass of beer after pounding fists on the table while shouting “Kanpai!” or “Sake Bomb!” In fact, the highest grades of sake are served cold. One thing to keep in mind is that sake, like wine, takes great care and time to produce. The labor-intensive production process truly makes a sake what it is.
To accompany dinner at your restaurant, given the kind of food that’s served, is there a good, all-purpose sake that will enhance the food while still holding its own?
Fujimura: At Arami we have a specialty sake called Ichi No Torii. It’s brewed exclusively for Arami, and it’s crafted to accompany a broad range of dishes featured at our restaurant. It is served cold and also warm. It is subtle enough to go with light fare like sashimi but bold enough to hold up to richer dishes like robata-grilled items and ramen.
Neosh: There’s a popular saying that goes “sake does not pick fights with food.” While some sakes pair better than others, most sakes are very food-friendly. There are no tannins like in wine, and the acidity of most sake is pretty balanced.
What sake do you like to drink?
Fujimura: Watari Bune has great history and flavor. Brewed with one of the oldest strains of sake rice, this ginjo sake has a very dynamic flavor: fruit notes, a bit of sweet/sour gaminess and plenty of umami. It’s a sake that keeps beckoning you back for sip after sip!
Neosh: Kanbara Junmai Ginjo, aka Bride of the Fox, is fruity and refreshing without being aggressively sweet or dry. It’s the kind of sake you can drink poolside on a hot summer day. Alternatively, there is also the Hakugyokko Junmai Yamahai Muroka Nama Genshu, aka the Fragrant Jewel. My sake teacher called it “the Beast” because it’s big, unpasteurized, undiluted, funky and full-flavored. If you like full flavors, this is where you want to be.
Lutz: My go-to on our list is Narutotai. It is a ginjo (slightly fortified) nama (unpasteurized) genshu (undiluted cask strength). A triple threat! This has been a favorite of mine for many years. Big and brassy, so it fits appropriately with the decor of Imperial Lamian. This sake is so unique in so many ways: a really cool bombshell-like can, designed to keep light from entering the bottle—because sake is pasteurized and delicate—with rich flavor and depth, a very full bodied sake. And it pairs amazingly with our food! Narutotai is produced by Honke Matsuura Brewery, the longest-established sake brewery still in business in Tokushima Prefecture.